A Porsche cruises the autobahn in this recent U.S. spot from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. HEARTBREAK ON AUTOBAHN

By Published on .

BERLIN-As an adman and motorist, Ingo Krauss feels a need for speed.

And the 50-year-old chairman of Young & Rubicam Germany sates that need on the famed German autobahns. Mr. Krauss warps along the Frankfurt-to-Cologne autobahn at 162 mph, taking to the limit his 1992 Ford Sierra with a special high-performance Cosworth engine. It's the breathtaking reality of that ad image of cars pushing their engines to the max, unfettered by such wimpy restraints as 65 mph speed limits.

Now, German politicians may be on the verge of pulling the spark plug on all that. One controversial issue in Germany's national elections Oct. 16 is whether to impose an 80 mph national speed limit on the country's autobahns.

Mr. Krauss has more than personal interest at stake. His agency handles the $65 million-plus Ford account for Germany, and about 60% of the 970,000 vehicles produced by Ford in Germany were exported last year. He's concerned that if limits are set, it will rob the country of one of its chief claims to fame: high-performance sports cars and luxury sedans, respected internationally for being engineered for speed.

This speed-limit idea is not the brainstorm of some fringe group of radical Greens. It's favored by the opposition Social Democratic Party and is likely to be proposed to the Legislature if the party gains control.

This is a party whose candidate for chancellor, Rudolf Scharping, is featured on election posters riding a bicycle. The Social Democrats are drawing support from environmentally conscious voters, who support speed limits to reduce auto emissions.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union Party are favored to win the election. However, weakness in the allied Free Democratic Party could force Mr. Kohl into a coalition with the Social Democrats, though he has flatly rejected that eventuality.

Mr. Kohl and his party want to allow citizens to keep their pedals to the metal.

"For millions of people, a car is a part of their personal freedom," Mr. Kohl said in a recent interview.

Mr. Krauss' worry: "What will happen [if the speed limit is implemented] is that the cost containment people at the car manufacturers will look at the new situation and ask, `Why should the company be building engines capable of cruising at 100 mph when the legal limit is only 80?'*"

The result could be engines with less pep, chassis with less stability. And probably an image loss for German autos worldwide, he believes.

"A speed limit wouldn't affect the way we build Fords, but we'd lose a sales argument on the international market," said a Ford spokesman in Cologne, who pointed out, however, that advertising focuses on safety, not speed. "Right now, people are prepared to pay a bit more for a German car because we can say they are built for high-speed driving," the spokesman said. "That wouldn't be the case with a speed limit."

Volker Nickel, managing director of the German advertising association ZAW in Bonn, said an imposed speed limit wouldn't affect auto advertising. Though 70% of Germany's 6,800 miles of autobahns currently have no speed limits, that's only 1% of all roads, he said. The average speed limit on most other two-lane highways is 60 mph.

Other ad executives say Germans have become much more responsible regarding what they expect from their cars.

And it's not that the Germans aren't safety conscious already. German law does require drivers to wear seat belts, and most comply.

"Over the years, we've seen advertisements for cars steadily departing from the theme of speed, and we think that will continue" regardless of the speed limit debate, said Annette Riessmann, account manager on the Adam Opel business at Lowe & Partner, Duesseldorf.

One recent spread for the Opel Omega sedan, however, does use velocity as a selling point. In the ad, a charging Omega is seen hugging a curve as the scenery rushes past in a high-speed blur. The copy stresses road-handling ability, safety and comfort. But the headline: "More heartbeats, less stress."

Even though automakers haven't used speed as a key selling point, Mr. Krauss said that when new cars are tested by the media, their top speed is always reported as an important factor, an index of its value.

"Once speed and high performance stop being a selling point, you'll see ads starting to stress things like smoothness of the ride," he said. "Then manufacturers will have to start offering additional equipment, gimmicks to play with, so that their cars stand out."

Not all of Mr. Krauss' competitors agree.

"I don't think we'd build slower cars," said a BMW spokesman in Munich, though he conceded speed limits could have a long-term effect on the image of German cars abroad.

He noted other high-performance car brands in Europe, such as Ferrari in Italy, are successful despite national speed limits in their homelands.

It may not be the best time to put the brakes on German cars' reputation for speed. For the first seven months of this year, new-car registrations were down by 0.3% to 2 million vehicles from the same period in 1993 as the recession hit new-car sales.

As marketers have tried to boost sales, they've turned to advertising, hiking spending 10% this year through July to $850 million. Total auto ad spending last year was $1.37 billion, according to ZAW, making car advertising the largest category in the nation for the second year in a row.

But that advertising will never budge some people, and high speeds won't move them either.

"I don't have a car and never had a drivers license," said the ZAW's Mr. Nickel. "I keep reading about these colossal traffic jams on the highways, and I'm glad I don't have to put up with them. I take public transportation to work."

Most Popular
In this article: